School board votes to consider closing St. Agatha Catholic Elementary

Waterloo Catholic District School Board trustees have voted to go ahead with a closure review of the small, rural school. If it goes ahead, the school would close in June 2017.

97 students currently attend the small, rural school

Trustees for the Waterloo Catholic District School Board voted Monday night to start a closure review of St. Agatha Catholic Elementary School. (St. Agatha Catholic Elementary School website)

The St. Agatha Catholic Elementary School may once again be on the chopping block after school board trustees voted on Monday night to direct staff to complete a closure review.

It will be the third time since 2009 that the school will be considered for closure.

Connie Snofl was one of the parents who spoke at the school board meeting Monday, asking trustees to reconsider the staff recommendation to go ahead with a closure review.

"I feel like it really didn't do much good. I think they kind of had their minds made up," she said, adding the school board admitted knowing since November that they would not be receiving any funding to do renovations to the school, but did not tell parents this information until last week.

"It seemed like it was their agenda not to [ask the Ministry of Education for funding for a new school]. They've been trying for eight years to close the school and they finally succeeded in doing it," she said.

Enrolment set to decline

Trustees for the Waterloo Catholic District School Board voted Monday night to start looking at a closure review after they heard enrolment at the school is 97 students and that is projected to decline to 89 students by 2024.

In 2014, the board voted to keep St. Agatha open, but directed staff to apply for funding from the Ministry of Education to build a new school.

"The board of trustees of the day understood that funding for a new school in Wilmot would not be applied for until sufficient enrolment existed in the township to justify making a business case for a new school. That's why their motion did not direct staff to apply 'immediately' for funding," the board's chief managing officer, John Shewchuk, said in an email to CBC News.

The staff report said residential growth within the catchment area for the St. Agatha school "is limited."

"The north end of Baden and the Town of Wellesley are located within St. Agatha's attendance boundary and these areas are mostly built out, meaning that there won't be any significant greenfield development within these areas."

"Due to the timing of new residential development within the township, the approval and construction of a new school is estimated to be at least 10 years away."

Population in Wilmot steadily growing

But Wilmot Mayor Les Armstrong does not agree with the idea that there would not be enough students to fill a new school in the next few years.

"It's not going to be next year, but by the year 2031 … the population will go from the current 21,000 to over 28,000. They say there's been no growth. Well, in the 10 years from 2001 to 2010, we had growth just in Baden alone of 151 per cent," Armstrong said Tuesday.

Wilmot Mayor Les Armstrong says the school board has been neglecting St. Agatha Catholic Elementary. (Wilmot Township)

He added there has been development in the north part of Baden and now there are developments at both ends of the town on the south side. Work being completed on upgrading the wastewater treatment plant will only encourage more development, he said.

"It's growing here [in Baden]. New Hamburg has been growing, there's a subdivision on the north end," he said. "They said that there's been no growth in Wilmot Township and that there's no growth in sight. Well, that's not true."

Young families with children moving to the area, he said, and Holy Family Catholic Elementary School in New Hamburg is crowded, with the school board adding portables.

He said he thinks school board staff have already decided to close the school.

"Staff have decided. Over the last several years, they've just totally neglected the school," Armstrong said.

"Not only are staff lying to the board that there's no growth expected in Wilmot, they've just neglected the school and by doing so they've given them the ammunition to say, 'Well, it's just too expensive for upkeep to bring it back up.' Well, that's their fault. They chose not to do the necessary maintenance that would keep the building in decent shape. That's the frustration."

Excess space in nearby schools

Staff said in a report to trustees that they had reached out to the ministry asking for funding to do upgrades to the school - including a new roof, heating system, doors and windows, at an estimated cost of more than $3.3 million - but that request was denied "because there is excess space in surrounding schools."

Over the last several years, they've just totally neglected the school.- Wilmot Mayor Les Armstrong

The school board also heard that closing St. Agatha would be part of its strategy to "right-size" schools. The board can apply to the ministry for funding to demolish entire wings of schools when the student population doesn't fill the school. Holy Rosary Catholic Elementary School in Waterloo has extra space and moving the students from St. Agatha would mean the board could avoid demolishing part of Holy Rosary.

As well, closing the school would mean the board would save money on leasing land for part of the school's playground. Currently, the board leases eight acres for its rear playground and that lease expires in April 2019. Without the playground, the school would sit on less than two acres. The ministry recommends schools sit on lots that are at least four acres.

Weighing all considerations

Shewchuk agreed the public may have thought a new school in Wilmot was more likely to happen right away.

But, he said, staff were well informed when they wrote the report presented to trustees Monday night.

"An extensive amount of staff time to pull together the facts and data needed to support something as serious as a recommendation to close a school. You need to proceed cautiously and with integrity, weighing all considerations and factoring in all known information/evidence before launching into one of these. That's what was done here," Schewchuk said in an email Tuesday afternoon.

He said the school community was not informed about the ministry refusing to pay for renovations to St. Agatha until last week because staff were still working on the report until "very recently." Staff were engaged in another boundary review last fall involving Kitchener's St. John Paul II Catholic Elementary.

"That review needed to be completed before staff were able to turn their attention to writing the business case supporting the [St. Agatha] closure recommendation," he wrote. "Under the circumstances, this is the earliest the trustees could have been asked to make a decision."

'We'll still fight'

The school board also decided on Monday night that a boundary extension that would bus students from the north part of Baden to St. Agatha was being reversed and those students would instead be bused to Holy Family in New Hamburg.

"That basically sealed the fate, right there," said Snoflt. "Who's going to come to the school now? There's no way any new kids are going to come now." 

St. Agatha Catholic Elementary School could be on the chopping block again - the third time since 2009 - as school board trustees voted Monday night to do a closure review. (Google StreetView)

Snofl said while she'd like to think there's hope for the St. Agatha school, she has resigned herself to the fact it will likely close in June 2017.

"I told my daughter that she'd probably be going to a new school for Grade 8," she said.

She said they will still fight for the school, but the fight may now switch gears to ensuring the students from St. Agatha go to the school the parents want to see them attend.

"I don't really hold out much hope, to be honest. But we'll still fight," she said.


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